February 18th-23rd, 2015
Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year) is a very important holiday in Taiwan. I would equate the importance to how important Christmas is to my family. When I found out that I would have four days off of work I immediately got online to figure out where I would travel to with the intention of going outside of Taiwan this time. A friend from college also went abroad to teach English except she ended up in South Korea. I contacted Alexa and she agreed to let me stay with her while I visited the country.
Due to my inconvenient flight time of 7:50am I was not able to take the train to the Taoyuan airport, so I hired my CT’s dad to drive me to the airport. I arrived there at 4:00am, waited an hour for the check-in counter to open up, and then made my way to my departure gate with time to order a coffee and breakfast sandwich.
Greeting me in South Korea (with only a mild fear that I wouldn’t be able to find her), Alexa and I hoped on a bus to her apartment and then ventured out to Hwaseong Fortress. The area was so large that we didn’t actually get to go into the fortress because we ended up walking up the small mountain and seeing an areal view, then walking around it so by the time we got to the front gate it was closed. It was cool even from an outside view.
Alexa and I met up with her co-worker for dinner where they treated me to barbecued beef ribs with all the additional food that comes with the meal.
After dinner we went to Noraebong (South Korean karaoke). We originally only paid for two hours, but the owner kept adding time to our room so we were able to sing our hearts out for three hours. With a wide range of Korean and English songs I had nearly lost my voice by the end of the session. Thanks to Alexa’s care it was cured with tea and rest.
In the morning, Alexa took me to tour Gwanghwamun & Palaces. This area is very historical as it was burnt down and is slowly, bit by bit, being restored. Alexa is very knowledgeable in Asian history so it was great hearing her describe different parts of the palace. There were many Korean families out around the palace for the Lunar New Year. Several of them were taking pictures in their traditional Korean garments. There were traditional drums, dancing, and crafts available for people to view or partake in within the palace as well.
Leaving the palace area we started walking towards the Hanok Village. This area is full of homes that were once apart of traditional Korean villages. The residents had commissioned the city of Seoul to not tear down the homes when Seoul was being reconstructed. Many of the Hanok homes have been passed down from generation to generation. While in the village area I paid for Alexa and I to go into a Hanok Museum, which ended up just being a very small home turned into a museum that was filled with old artifacts from the Hanok area. One of the first comments that Alexa and I made when we walked in was, “What’s with all the cutting boards”. I also got the chance to take several pictures of cool looking doors too.
We of course enjoyed some Korean snacks while touring around the village. You can’t have a real trip without food!
We decided to turn a long day into an even longer one and go visit Namsan Tower. Alexa figured that the lines wouldn’t be too terribly long on a holiday; we hoped.
Arriving at the base of the mountain that Namsan Tower is on we got in line for the cable car ride that would take us up the mountain. The wait was nearly an hour and I was mildly surprised when the people running the cable car jammed nearly 20-30 people into the car and sent us on our way. (Do not go on this cable car if you are claustrophobic.)
Up at the base of Namsan Tower I was able to take pictures, look at the Love Lock Trees and then enjoy some Kimchi Stew for dinner. We then purchased tickets to go up Namsan Tower and see the view of Seoul at night. That was also another hour long wait. Thankfully the gift shop near the waiting area was a great time for me to buy postcards and a world travel map.
Once our number was finally called we could go up the tower. The elevator ride was less than a minute, so quick! In the tower I was able to walk around and take pictures. On the windows of the tower they have major cities and the amount of kilometers away each city is. Of course I needed to make a stop at Chicago, US and Taipei, Taiwan. When I was done walking around we made our way down the tower, and picked up some Coldstone ice cream (it didn’t taste the same as back home, but it still was good) before walking down the mountain (no way were we going to take the cable car again!). We got back on the subway and finally made our way home to hope in bed for an early morning the next day.
I had booked a tour for Alexa and I to go and visit DMZ on Friday. We needed to be at Gangnam Station by 7:30am. Even after waking up very early we were running 5-10 minutes late. Alexa was calling the tour guide while we were on the subway trying to get their next location figured out if we were to miss our pick-up time. At one point we were running through the stations and jogging up stairs. We got out of the station and our bus was right there, ready to go. We hopped on the bus and just relaxed until we reached the De-militarized Zone between the border of North Korea and South Korea.
They stopped the bus to give us a chance to look at a train that was shot by North Korean military when it was entering North Korea. Since then there are no longer any trains that are allowed in and out of North Korea. Back on the bus we went into the DMZ. First, we were stopped at a check point to allow a South Korean soldier to come on-board and check our IDs before we could continue onto the Third Tunnel. This tunnel is one of four known tunnels that North Korea has dug to South Korea. It is big enough to carry several troops and military machinery through it within a certain period of time. I don’t know why anyone would want to walk through that tunnel as it was short enough that I had to crouch 95% of the time, and I am only 5’5″. Thank goodness for my hardhat!
After the viewing of the Third Tunnel we were able to go to the observation deck. Here we could see the North Korean flag and a small city that is right next to the border. This was by far the weirdest part of the trip. The city was completely empty. It is there to create the idea that North Korean people are actually allowed to live near the border when in fact they do not. The North Korean government, on warmer days, will have actors bicycle around and let a dog walk around the “city”. Otherwise, the city is full of buildings, cars, apartments, and store fronts that are completely empty. It just added to the quiet and eeriness of DMZ.
Next stop was the Dorasan Station. This station was created to be a link between North Korea and South Korea. If this station was actually in use, and North Korea would allow trains to go through their country, people from South Korea could take a train all the way from South Korea to France. Since none of this is possible until border issues are resolved the station is left as a symbol of stagnation between South Korea and North Korea.
Of course while we were there we had to pick-up some DMZ chocolate covered soybeans. While a little pricey ($12USD a box) I picked some up for my co-workers and myself. They taste pretty good actually.
Since there is a two and a half hour time limit for anyone who visits DMZ we had to be on our way. I feel like I could have spent hours in DMZ just soaking in more history and reflecting on the eery quiet of the border. Although there wasn’t much action there, like I assumed there might be for some reason, I am still glad I went.
Arriving back in Seoul, Alexa and I walked to Myeondong, which is a huge shopping market area. It is a mix between actual stores, half store fronts, and street carts filled with things to buy or food to eat. Alexa and I had lunch and then I was on my own to walk around and shop.
I spent more than enough money there buying clothes and beauty products. I also had great snack food too. While I enjoy Taiwan very much the shopping is very disappointing. South Korea is the hub of Asian fashion so it was awesome to be at the source. The Myeondong area also had Forever 21 and H&M stores, so it was like getting a little piece of home shopping right there in Asia. Once I had gotten enough shopping out of my system I made my way home.
*One of the best parts about Korea: heated flooring. I had done so much walking the past couple of days that my body was aching. I felt like an out of shape, old woman. When I got back to Alexa’s apartment I laid on her floor for an hour or so just letting the heat soak into my body. It was fabulous!*
With Alexa feeling a little under the weather I was on my own for the day. My first destination of the day was the Korean War Memorial Museum. This was a great opportunity to learn more about Korean military history. There was a memorial inside of the museum and then each level of the museum was a different war period and section of military history. There were also old military boats, cars, and airplanes in the museum, along with different uniforms, and a section about how Korean women have paved their way into the Korean military. Two things took me by surprise at the museum. The first, was the amount of US military men and women that were there. I knew about the US military bases in South Korea, but I wasn’t expecting to see so many at the museum. The second, was the amount of ally wars that South Korea has fought with the US. While in the US I was aware of the wars that were being fought abroad, but I never really paid attention to who our military women and men may have been fighting with on the battle field. I spent a few hours in the museum before I made my way to another part of Seoul.
Next, I ventured over to Namdaemun Market. By the time I arrived the drizzling that had been happening earlier that morning had turned into a constant rain. I immediately purchased an umbrella and found a stand to eat at. Eating lunch under an umbrella type tarp area was interesting, but lunch was delicious. I spent the rest of the time walking in and out of the streets and stands that form the market. I found and purchased many souvenirs and Korean goods. Probably the most annoying part about my time there was the fact that it was raining. I was constantly being told to move my umbrella so that the goods people were selling wouldn’t get wet. It made sense, but it was still annoying. I had a few more Korean snacks and then decided to head over to Insadong.
Insadong is known for it’s artsy feel with many art galleries and art shops in the area. I spent time walking up and down Insadong and went into a few shops. Eventually, I wanted to give my feet a break and I wanted to warm up because Insadong was very windy and chilly. I stopped at a coffee shop and took a break there while drinking a latte. After my break I did a little more venturing around Insadong and then decided to go back to the palace area so I could go to the Seoul History Museum.
Checking the map in the subway station before leaving the station I knew where I needed to go, but of course I still got lost. Walking back to the station it was cold, windy, rainy, and my phone was almost dead, but I needed to get an epic selfie. So I quickly walked across the street to take a selfie of me, the statue of King Sejong, Gyeongbukgung Palace, and Bugaksan Mountain. I continued to walk, so much that I got to another station. I looked at a new map and decided to scratch that idea and go to the National Palace Museum of Korea. It was around 5:00pm so I crossed my fingers that it was going to be open until 7:00pm, and it was. It actually worked out really well because I had been to the palaces a few days before and then I was able to learn about the history of the palaces in the museum. After walking around the museum I decided it was time to eat. Too lazy to find a subway line to take me to food I went right into the cafe close to the museum. I had a sweet potato cheese dish and a Korean Citrus Tea. They were both delicious and naturally sweet.
Calling it a day I went home where Alexa and I spent the evening relaxing and watching Friends.
Being my last day in Korea and having spent all my time in Korea on the go I decided Sunday was going to be a relaxed day. I woke up a bit later and slowly made my way into Seoul to an university area named Hongdae. With the population of this area being largely young, college students there were several places to eat, many shops, fun museums, yummy snacks, and even a few tattoo and piercing shops. I ate plenty of yummy food and snacks. After walking around for a bit I stopped in a coffee shop called Hi Cafe. The main theme of the shop was saying hello in different languages. There were even study rooms that you could time into and books available in all different languages. While walking around I saw a group of young people, I am assuming students of the university, performing and dancing to K-Pop songs. They were a fun group and at one point I almost thought I was going to be roped into dancing too, but it didn’t happen. Having enough of walking around I went back to Alexa’s apartment to spend my last evening with her.
For my last meal Alexa took me to get Samgyeopsal. While eating I even tried some Soju (the popular rice liquor of South Korea). It was alright, but since I don’t drink that much anymore I know I would have gotten drunk off the bottle, so I had to stop after awhile. Finished eating Alexa and I walked around doing a little more shopping. We even tried to hunt down some beauty products, but with not much luck. At that moment I had officially spent all of my Korean Won, so Alexa was being wayyyyy to kind and buying me little treats. The last goodies that I had in South Korea were a shaved ice dessert called Bingsu and a slice of gourmet cheesecake. This was so much dessert in one evening, but it was worth it as desserts are not really a specialty in Taiwan. I spent the rest of the evening relaxing and packing for my flight the next day.
My flight was around 12:00 noon so I got up early enough to get ready and walk to the bus stop to catch an Airport Limousine bus to the Incheon Airport. Everything went very smoothly at the airport. I even had enough time to get a breakfast sandwich and coffee before my flight. Arriving back in Taiwan I had zero problems going through immigration. That is where the fun began. I had never arrived in the Taoyuan airport on my own before, so I didn’t really know how to get home. In a rush to just get back to Fengyuan I decided to take the bus to Taichung Train Station instead of take a short bus to the High Speed Rail. Mistake! The bus went the most horrible way back to Taichung, and then the Taichung Train Station was packed. Let’s just say I learned my lesson and I am never doing that again. I did get home and enjoyed a nice meal with my friends and then went to sleep right away.
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to South Korea. Not only was it nice to venture out on my own for the first time, but getting to spend time with Alexa was an added bonus as I always enjoy my time with her. My trip to South Korea definitely kicked off the travel bug and I can’t wait to be onto my journey to Bali, Indonesia in May 2015. I’m sad I no longer have yummy Korean food to eat, but I am so thankful for such a great trip.
Thanks for the Seoul Searching, South Korea! ❤